Opinion: What we've learned from Afghanistan — and what's next?

While often only seen in the context of war, Afghanistan is in fact a country making huge strides in areas of economic development, health, education, and women’s empowerment. Photo by: Chemonics

When Afghanistan appears in the media, it is usually in the context of it being a war zone — the site, in fact, of the United States’ longest war. And that’s certainly true. But I have been lucky to see another side of the country — beyond the news headlines — where the Afghan government and international donors are making huge strides in economic development, health, education, and women’s empowerment. For instance, there are now 9.2 million children in school, compared to just 1 million in 2002. And while in 2002 nearly all were boys, today 39 percent are girls. The economy too is growing quickly, with Afghanistan joining the World Trade Organization in 2016 and the country’s export markets expanding.

Realistically, though, there are unique challenges to working effectively in Afghanistan. The security context changes daily, and the complex political dynamics influenced by foreign policy shifts from multiple countries is ever-evolving. It is because of this however, that there are many lessons to be gleaned from the country on what has worked well in terms of development and where we can improve, along with how we, as a community, can sustain our progress toward a resilient Afghanistan.

Adapt, adapt, adapt

In some ways, what has worked isn’t unique to Afghanistan. Adapting to change, being inclusive, and measuring results are nothing new. However, the context in Afghanistan adds unique challenges and one size does not fit all.

“We have to remember to bring women — and men — into the planning and design of these programs, so the solutions are appropriate to the context.”

— Catherine Kannam, senior vice president, Afghanistan regional business unit and gender equality and social inclusion practice, Chemonics

While adapting to change is critical to success in any country or community, the security reality in Afghanistan is one of the most complex in the world and requires us to continually adapt our technical activities in response to the shifting landscape. Approaches that we employ must maximize flexibility and be poised to respond to shifts in funding, changes in scope, and adjust to where we can work — and, most importantly, continue driving progress.

Programmatic shifts can be countrywide, but more often they are localized to specific regions. In the southern part of the country, for instance, instability has consistently risen over the course of the last several years, as U.S. and international security forces have withdrawn. As a result, our staff travel to target sites has been severely curtailed. To mitigate the impact of this change, we have been able to pivot by engaging with community leaders, creating mobile training teams, using centralized demonstration sites for training opportunities, and employing only individuals from a given area — all of which reduced the profile of project activities and allowed them to move forward.  

Be inclusive

Like employing adaptive management, being inclusive in project design and implementation is a best practice no matter where you are working. For the past 16 years in Afghanistan, that has largely meant bringing women into our work and ensuring they have access to the tools that allow them to participate fully in government, education, and the economy. Sometimes, that means building up the soft skills and confidence that women need to thrive in professional contexts. It can also mean providing access to the right types of financing for their businesses.

These changes are part of a broader cultural shift in the country that has been bolstered by the international community. We have to remember to bring women — and men — into the planning and design of these programs, so the solutions are appropriate to the context. For instance, in our efforts to bring women into government in Afghanistan, we brought not only women interested in serving in government into our strategies, but also men in positions of authority. Today, women are increasingly becoming more vocal advocates as leaders within the public and private sector, yet the gains are typically uneven and tenuous, and the work needs to continue in order to ensure that gains are sustained beyond any one particular project.

Strengthening enterprise growth, job creation, and trade

Investing in private sector growth is already yielding tangible benefits. The Passage to Prosperity trade show in India that showcased Afghan businesses generated $240 million in agreements, including $27 million in signed contracts for Afghan exports and Indian investments. The event helped to reinvigorate Indian-Afghan relations and demonstrated Afghanistan’s trade potential to other countries in the region and beyond. Events like this can have real impact, well beyond the duration of the event itself.

Through the new export customs “One-Stop-Shop” at Hamid Karzai International Airport, launched in January 2018, Afghan traders now benefit from a simplified process for obtaining approvals and permits from different ministries, agencies, and associations in one central office, located within the airport itself. As part of this effort to facilitate exports, we demonstrated the viability of air cargo, supporting traders in exporting $2.7 million worth of goods by air and coordinating with government and investors to upgrade Afghan airports’ air cargo capacity. Expanding these efforts to Afghanistan’s regional hubs will allow us to multiply the impact many times over.

Measure what matters

In Afghanistan, where we cannot always physically visit beneficiaries, measurement and verification of results can be complicated, but is doubly important for that reason. Designing a monitoring and evaluation strategy and framework that allows us to track what we need is the first step, but that framework must also be flexible enough to account for times when staff cannot safely travel to project sites — often due to insurgent activity in our target areas.

One way to account for those challenges is to build strong relationships with credible local individuals and partners, who are better able to navigate political complexities and leverage access and local knowledge, to serve as critical eyes and ears on the ground. Through establishing multitiered mechanisms for accountability, we have learned and better understand the type of in-depth oversight and quality control measures that are necessary to ensure that data collection and analysis are of high quality and reliable. We have found that when reliable data is collected, it is not only a powerful tool with which to communicate development impact, but such evidence-based analysis can also be an important advocacy tool. For instance, quantifying the costs of restrictions to trade and movement and access of goods can powerfully communicate the potential impact of reforms to catalyze private sector growth. Finding those meaningful metrics is critical to clearly communicating the impact of many development initiatives.

How we can build on the sector’s collective successes?

In partnership with the Afghan government and countless Afghan institutions and organizations, we, as a community, have made tremendous progress in Afghanistan over the past 16 years. Now is the time to solidify those gains, laying the foundation for Afghanistan to grow beyond the need for donor assistance.

One way to continue that progress is to focus on enhancing stability by facilitating economic growth of the nation’s regional hubs, building upon the recent years of institutional capacity building, service delivery improvement, and enabling environment strengthening taking place at the subnational level. Efforts that focus on strengthening enterprise growth, job creation, and trade facilitation outside of Kabul, have an important impact.

We should also continue to focus on strong partnerships and coordination. With donors and partners from multiple countries working toward the country’s development, we need to be aware of each other’s activities to avoid redundancy. Perhaps most importantly, though, we must continue to build and reinforce strategic partnerships with the national government, local governments, private sector firms, civil society groups, and others in Afghanistan. Strengthening the capacity of and working with and through local organizations and individuals is the surest path toward sustainable change.

About the author

  • Catherinekannam devex photo

    Catherine Kannam

    Catherine Kannam is currently the senior vice president for Chemonics’ Afghanistan region. She has eight years’ experience working in Afghanistan. A local economic development and municipal governance specialist, Kannam joined Chemonics in 2010 as a manager where her portfolio included managing the Tunisia tax and customs pilot, the Jordan Cities Implementing Transparent, Innovative, and Effective Solutions project; and the Lebanon Water Infrastructure Support and Enhancement project. She also served as the director of the Regional Agricultural Development Program — South as well as the director and deputy chief of party for the Regional Afghan Municipalities Program for Urban Populations — South. Kannam began her international development career as a junior program officer in New Delhi India with the American India Foundation.